Respiratory rhythm during sleep may be dependent on blood pH with apneas being associated with alkalosis. Acidification may therefore have therapeutic value in some forms of sleep apnea. We administered acetazolamide to six patients with symptomatic central sleep apnea, a disorder of respiratory rhythm with little or no upper airway obstruction. Sleep studies were carried out before and after one week of drug therapy, during which time the mean arterial pH decreased from 7.42 to 7.34. All six patients had significant improvement, demonstrating a 69% reduction in total apneas. Five of the six patients reported better-quality sleep and decreased daytime hypersomnolence. Subsequent studies in normal subjects showed that acetazolamide, like other agents known to produce a metabolic acidosis, shifted the hypercapnic ventilatory response to the left 5 +/- 0.54 mm Hg. This may be important in mediating the observed decrease in apneas.